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Is It Safe?: BPA and the Struggle to Define the Safety of Chemicals

SARAH A. VOGEL
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 324
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw410
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  • Book Info
    Is It Safe?
    Book Description:

    We are all just a little bit plastic. Traces of bisphenol A or BPA, a chemical used in plastics production, are widely detected in our bodies and environment. Is this chemical, and its presence in the human body, safe? What is meant by safety? Who defines it, and according to what information?Is It Safe?narrates how the meaning of the safety of industrial chemicals has been historically produced by breakthroughs in environmental health research, which in turn trigger contests among trade associations, lawyers, politicians, and citizen activists to set new regulatory standards. Drawing on archival research and extensive interviews, author Sarah Vogel explores the roots of the contemporary debate over the safety of BPA, and the concerns presented by its estrogen-like effects even at low doses. Ultimately, she contends that science alone cannot resolve the political and economic conflicts at play in the definition of safety. To strike a sustainable balance between the interests of commerce and public health requires recognition that powerful interests will always try to shape the criteria for defining safety, and that the agenda for environmental health research should be protected from capture by any single interest group.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95420-5
    Subjects: Public Health, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Measurements
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  8. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Jerome Heckman is a short, rotund man with oversized glasses. Now in his mid-eighties, Heckman still works in his large office at Keller and Heckman, the global law firm he established and expanded over the past half century, representing the world’s leading producers of plastics, pesticides, food additives, and other chemical specialty items. As the general counsel for the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), the industry trade association, Heckman has led plastics producers and manufacturers through numerous crises that threatened to stall or close markets: from efforts to ban plastic bottles to concerns about the toxicity of vinyl chloride,...

  9. 1 Plastic Food
    (pp. 15-42)

    Babies are not just little adults. This simple observation explains why the Beech-Nut Company, a manufacturer of baby foods, voluntarily chose to conduct safety tests of pesticide residues in its products. According to a company representative, its tests considered “prenatal, environmental, physiological, and structural [factors]—which may cause a baby to react to food residues in a manner different from the adult.” As a reason for Beech-Nut’s tests, the representative pointed to the pesticide DDT and evidence that its “estrogen-like” qualities negatively affected sexual development in young animals. Given the vulnerabilities of babies, the company established a near-zero tolerance for...

  10. 2 The “Toxicity Crisis” of the 1960s and 1970s
    (pp. 43-77)

    In 1972, a study conducted by the National Health and Lung Institute found traces of a class of chemicals called phthalates in the blood of its laboratory workers. Phthalates are compounds added to plastics, notably PVC. “We’re all a little plastic,” declared aWashington Postreport. Concentrations of 10 to 30 parts per million (ppm) in blood samples might seem inconsequential, but, as the reporter explained, “It is far from a tiny number for a biochemist.”¹ We had become what we made, and awareness of this reality raised questions and fears about what these chemicals might be doing to the...

  11. 3 Regulatory Toxicity Testing and Environmental Estrogens
    (pp. 78-103)

    David Rall, a cancer specialist and physician, institutionalized the field of environmental health sciences. For nearly two decades, from 1971 to 1990 , he served as the second director of the newly established National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Under his leadership, the institution was transformed from a small group of researchers to an expansive, sprawling tri-city research hub known as Research Triangle Park, set amid the pine trees of central North Carolina. He led efforts to ground the study of public exposure to chemicals and other environmental hazards in the basic sciences, hiring researchers trained in cellular and...

  12. 4 Endocrine Disruption: New Science, New Risks
    (pp. 104-136)

    In the early 1990s, scientists working in the Division of Endocrinology Stanford University’s School of Medicine stumbled upon an uncontrolled contaminant in their laboratory: BPA. It was scientific serendipity. What the researchers first thought might be an estrogenic substance produced by the yeast cells they were working with turned out to be BPA. Used make polycarbonate plastic, BPA had leached out of the plastic flasks the laboratory. Polycarbonate’s strength, heat resistance, and clarity make it an excellent replacement for glass, and by the 1980s it was replacing glass tubes, flasks, and bottles in laboratories and hospitals. At the time when...

  13. 5 The Low-Dose Debate
    (pp. 137-174)

    Before the meeting at the Wingspread Conference Center in 1991, chemicals such as BPA had been of no particular research interest to Fred vom Saal. The research that first intrigued him as a young graduate student in neurobiology at Rutgers University in the 1970s involved the study of behavioral differences in genetically identical strains of mice. If not genetics, what accounted for such variability? This was the classic conundrum in evolutionary biology. Is it genes or environment, or both, that determine an individual’s development, health, behavior, and personality?

    In the early years of his career, vom Saal studied how the...

  14. 6 Battles over Bisphenol A
    (pp. 175-212)

    In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the question of BPA’s safety gained widespread domestic and international attention. The prevailing public narrative about BPA—articulated by advocacy organizations and growing number of researchers, and echoed by many journalists and social media bloggers—held that it was unsafe. Environmental health advocates across the United States targeted plastic baby bottles and canned foods as unacceptable sources of BPA exposure, aggravating consumer concerns and demands for safer products. Wal-Mart responded by pulling polycarbonate plastic baby bottles off shelves, replacing them with readily available BPA-free bottles—made of metal and other plastics—at...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 213-218)

    In a 2009 episode ofThe Simpsons,BPA became fodder for prime-parody. Banished from making snacks for her mothers’ playgroup—group of educated and internationally diverse women that might represent today’s self-described “eco-moms”—Marge Simpson decides to convert the Simpson family to a healthy, socially conscious diet. The first step a trip to a grocery store that looks conspicuously like Whole Foods, where the Simpsons rack up a ludicrously high bill familiar to any shopper high-end natural food stores. Next, Marge bakes what she conceives be the ultimate healthy, socially conscious, safe snack food: “homemade, organic, nongluten, fair-trade zucchini cupcakes.”...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 219-272)
  17. Index
    (pp. 273-304)